The Lake of the Woods District Hospital continues on the roller coaster ride of what is COVID-19.

This ride has taken them through vaccination policies, non-emergent services suspended, patient visitor limitations, outbreaks, and many more struggles.

Significant staff shortages are what the ride has taken the hospital on, along with many other regional hospitals in recent months causing unprecedented times.

Hospital CEO, Ray Racette says that the recent staff vacancies are the worst he has seen in the last 20-30 years and during the last two years of COVID-19.

“We’re really challenged right now, especially with our staffing situation,” said Racette. “Our biggest challenge right now is that we’re seeing staffing shortages unprecedented in our history as a hospital.”

Prior to the pandemic beginning the hospital only had a vacancy rate of only 7-10 per cent among all departments, and now their vacancy rate is up to 22 per cent.

“There’s no patient-related service that is fully staffed right now, like even labs a 25 per cent vacancy. Emergency the vacancy rate is 44 per cent, ICU has a 55 per cent vacancy. Nursing supervisors have just over 50 per cent vacancies. Over all of our services we have vacancies we’ve never seen before.”

The large majority of staff shortages Racette said are nurses due to burnout, exhaustion, disengagement, and Bill 124 that caps compensation increases to 1 per cent.

Racette noted that to fix the ongoing nurse shortage he is looking at adding more support workers, and more allied health staff into service to alleviate shortages.

The lack of staff on numerous occasions has forced the hospital to close its doors to one service, in particular, many times. Due to a lack of staff, the intensive care unit (ICU) had to close 14 times since September of 2021, with most happening recently.

Racette said that in those times the ICU had to close, patients were still cared for, but were just moved to the Emergency Room to receive the proper care they needed. 

He noted hospital vacancies will continue to get worse as more and more staff begin to become infected with COVID-19 as restrictions have become lifted.

“Even if they're not infected let us say they get exposed they have to isolate for seven days, and if they develop symptoms then we would need to test them, and if they're positive you go for a longer length of time.”

As of April 6, 2022, Racette said that 20 staff have tested positive and are currently unavailable to work.

Those who are infected with COVID Racette says may be a part of or supporting other departments, causing a domino effect in those specific areas with losing staff, and then covered by other staff.

One of the key issues Racette pointed out for the staff shortages besides COVID infections is the fact the hospital is having a hard time getting external help especially with physicians.

“Now we’re getting further caught because we’re not getting external help to any extent that we could’ve gotten before. That now puts more pressure on the existing people in terms of what they need to do to keep the service open.”

At one point this year Racette mentioned that 60 per cent of their shifts were being covered externally compared to local staff.

The hospital has been in talks with the regional public officials, and health organizations to try and determine a solution to the current staffing crisis.

In regards to physician shortages, the hospital does have access to the Ontario Physician Locum Programs (OPLP). The OPLP  provides centralized and coordinated locum physician assistance for hospitals, communities, and physicians across the province.

Through the OPLP the province will provide Emergency Department, Northern Specialist, and Rural Family Medicine programs.

Ontario has also stepped up and tried to fill the staff gaps that were discovered by COVID.

Last week, the province announced its new Plan to Stay Open, which aims to build a stronger, more resilient healthcare system that’s better prepared to respond to crises by filling long-standing gaps in the province’s workforce, supply chain, and lack of hospital beds.

If the legislation is passed, Ontario says the Plan to Stay Open will look to recruit and retain more doctors, nurses, and personal support workers across the province will expand domestic production of personal protective equipment and will continue building healthcare infrastructure to build capacity.

Initiatives include free tuition and books for nursing students, enhance wages for personal support workers, reduced barriers for foreign-credentialed healthcare workers to practice in Ontario, a significant expansion of medical school education, and the construction of 3,000 new hospitals beds over 10 years.

"Our challenge is that we can't wait two years for some of those things to bear fruit. They will help us then as they manifest themselves but they don't help us right now and that's where we need help," concluded Racette. 

The Lake of the Woods Hospital is not the only facility in the region facing these staffing challenges.

On March 26, the Red Lake Margaret Cochenour Hospital emergency room had to close its doors for the whole weekend due to its own local physician shortage and leave its community without emergency room coverage.

As a result of the emergency room closure, those that needed emergency care were redirected to the Dryden Regional Health Centre 216 kilometres southeast.

Kiiwetinoong MPP, Sol Mamakwa, brought forward on Tuesday (April 5, 2022) a similar physician shortage in Sioux Lookout that has almost cost their hospitals emergency room to shut its doors. He mentioned that a doctor in the region worked ten 24-hour shifts in one month, six more then doctor's usually work. 

Minister of Health and Deputy Premier, Christine Elliott responded to his statement by saying they’re adding more graduate and undergraduate seats to medical schools over the next five years.

Ontario will be adding 160 undergraduate and 295 post-graduate seats in that time, which is the largest expansion in medical schools in the last 10 years.

The Northern Ontario School of Medicine will receive 41 under-graduates and 30 post-graduate seats. Ontario ranks seventh among Canadian provinces in the number of family doctors per 100,000 patients, and the shortage is made worse in northern and rural areas, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.